CHARLESTON, S.C. (CN) — The third week of Alex Murdaugh’s double murder trial was punctuated by several unusual controversies as court officials grappled first with a bomb threat and then an online campaign to raise donations for a witness in the high-profile case.
The disruptions highlighted the intense attention the trial has received from the public, as true crime aficionados dissected the televised proceedings on social media and online forums.
No arrests were announced Friday in the bomb threat, which caused the courthouse to be briefly evacuated Wednesday afternoon while authorities searched the building.
Murdaugh, 54, is charged with two counts of murder on allegations he fatally shot his wife, Maggie, and their son Paul on June 7, 2021, near a dog kennel on the family’s rural hunting estate in Colleton County. The 52-year-old wife was slain with a semiautomatic rifle, while their 22-year-old son died from two shotgun blasts.
Friends and colleagues described the defendant in testimony this week as a sharp trial attorney who used his intuition and glad-handing gifts to devastating effect in personal-injury cases. The high-energy attorney wasn’t great with legal details, testified Ronnie Crosby, a partner at the Murdaugh family’s former law firm, but he dazzled colleagues with his ability to outmaneuver opposing counsel and insurance companies.
By all appearances, Murdaugh was a loving husband and father, witnesses said. He hunted and fished with his sons. His family accompanied him to legal conferences and they were a common sight together at University of South Carolina sporting events. Blanca Turrubiate-Simpson, a family housekeeper, testified Friday she never saw the couple argue, except minor quibbles over home remodeling decisions.
Prosecutors allege trouble roiled beneath the surface, however. Despite his professional success, the family was mired in debt, and multiple investigations threatened to reveal a decadeslong fraud scheme Murdaugh allegedly perpetrated against former legal clients. The murders were a desperate bid by the attorney to steer attention away from the thefts, according to prosecutors.
State prosecutor Creighton Waters acknowledged in his opening statement on Jan. 25 the murder case is largely built on circumstantial evidence, particularly holes in the defendant’s alibi.
Murdaugh told investigators he last saw his loved ones at dinner on June 7, 2021. Afterward, he said he took a nap and then drove to his parent’s house to visit his mother, who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease.
On Monday, Mushelle "Shelley" Smith, a caretaker for Murdaugh’s mother, testified about her interactions with the prominent attorney the night of the murders and in the following days.
Murdaugh visited his mother for no more than 20 minutes that night, the woman testified, but the prominent lawyer later insisted in a conversation he was there for 30 or 40 minutes. He also offered to help pay for the key alibi witness’s upcoming wedding.
Smith struggled to speak while on the stand and sometimes contradicted herself during cross-examination. She cried as she told jurors the Murdaughs were a “good family.”
On Thursday, one of Murdaugh’s defense attorneys revealed Smith’s daughter, Rachelle Buckner, had created a GoFundMe account to raise donations for her mother. Buckner wrote on the crowdfunding platform that she wanted to recognize her mother's "bravery" and "honesty" in testifying.
Among the largest donors to the campaign was attorney Mark Tinsley, another state witness who filed a lawsuit against the Murdaugh family over the death of a 19-year-old girl in a boating crash. Paul Murdaugh was charged with operating the boat while intoxicated in the crash, but died before the case went to trial.
Tinsley initially identified himself as the $1,000 donor before removing his name from the website, defense attorney Phillip Barber said. Nonetheless, prosecutors confirmed it was authentic.
Barber told Colleton County Judge Clifton Newman the attorney’s actions were improper and should bar him from testifying in the case. The judge denied the motion, but said the issue would be “good fodder for cross-examination.”
Defense attorneys declined to raise the issue during Friday’s cross-examination, however.
Meanwhile, donations continued to trickle in to the website — a few cheekily made in the defense attorneys' names. As of Friday afternoon, more than $26,000 in donations were recorded.
Waters told the judge Thursday he anticipated the state would rest its case next week. Defense attorney Dick Harpootlian estimated the defense’s presentation would take a week, meaning deliberations could begin as early as Feb. 22.
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